Stage director Daisy Evans discusses The Atlanta Opera’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”

Mark Gresham | 5 OCT 2022

In November 2021, the UK-based Theatre of Sound, a partnership between long-time collaborators Daisy Evans and Stephen Higgins, presented a brand new and immersive production of Béla Bartók’s opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, at Stone Nest, a former Welsh chapel in the heart of London’s West End.

This Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, The Atlanta Opera mounts three performances of that production as part of their Discoveries Series at the Bailey Performance Center’s Morgan Hall on the campus of Kennesaw State University.

In this intimate re-imagining of the opera, the Gothic thriller is turned on its head, retold through the lens of living with dementia. It is performed in English with a fresh chamber orchestration, sung by Susan Bullock as Judith and Michael Mayes as Bluebeard, with stage direction by Evans, and conducted by Higgins.

EarRelevant’s publisher and principal writer Mark Gresham recently talked with stage director Daisy Evans about this production of Bluebeard’s Castle. The Q&A below draws from that conversation and is lightly edited for length and clarity.

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Mark Gresham: What was it that drew you as a stage director to Bluebeard’s Castle?

Stage director Daisy Evans discusses The Atlanta Opera’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”

Stage director Daisy Evans. (courtesy of TAO)

Daisy Evans: It sounds obvious, but it’s such a beautiful opera. Years ago, when I was first starting off with my own company, we were looking for short operas, one-act operas that we could do, and Bluebeard’s Castle is at the top of most single act opera lists. What first drew me to it was the length, to be honest. That means you’ve got this concentrated, intense hour in the theater, which is really intense storytelling for a shorter period of time — my personal preference. I find that appealing, especially as we are moving in the world towards shorter attention spans, dare I say it. Having shorter things is more beneficial to keep people’s concentration and attention really taut.

MG: It was a very pragmatic thing, then, that introduced you to the opera.

DE: Initially, it was quite an objective fact. Then once it was in front of me, I began to realize how beautiful and expressionist the libretto is. And the orchestration is absolutely outrageous. It’s stunningly orchestrated. The psychological possibilities and the storytelling that you can get between two people is really incredible for a director because there’s a lot to unpack there.

Bluebeard’s Castle is a very “still” opera. Bartók’s original stage directions describe a long hallway with seven locked doors, and every time a door is opened, we just look through the door; we don’t actually go in. It just describes what we can see. So that fascinated me because a lot of operas are kind of action-packed — you know, the kind of “everything but nothing,” if that makes sense.

It’s a very emotionally intense hour in the theater, which I find incredibly interesting, and the possibilities are limitless, especially with the Bartók interpretation. The fairy tale by Charles Perrault is quite specific and quite Gothic and brutal, and it’s very obvious that he’s mad at his wife. Whereas the opera by Béla Bartók and Béla Balázs, who was his librettist, is much more expressionistic and symbolic than the various situations in the folk tale. The wives at the end are kind of living. And I say “kind of” because it never really describes what they are. They’re sort of presences. It’s all very open to interpretation, and ultimately, that’s what drew me to it as an opera.

Béla Bartók in 1927

Béla Bartók in 1927. (public domain)

MG: Because it’s so open to interpretation, was that also a piece of what compelled you to create a new English libretto and storyline?

DE: Absolutely. Having just talked about it being so open, the one thing I’ve never seen it get away from is that it is always a deathly Gothic castle, even if it is about an exploration of the male psyche, curiosity, or a wider cautionary tale. I feel like I’ve never seen it get away from a young virginal bride to the slaughter of an all-powerful man.

As a female creative, the older I get, the more I realize that love operas are still, in 2022, interpreted in a not very interesting way from a female point of view. You know, operas with virginal heroines that go to their death. I’m always interested in what more is there and how we can see these women as more than that.

As for the character of Judith, I wanted to try to find a way so that she was much stronger and that she had agency; that the curiosity that drives her through the castle isn’t just a foolish, innocent Alice through the Looking Glass, but was a desperate need to know what’s behind these doors, because there is something much more real behind them. It’s not just her looking through an art gallery. It’s her looking through pieces of information that somehow mean something to her. So I had that question on my mind.

Whenever I’ve seen it before, I’ve always felt very removed and unable to connect with the character of Bluebeard. Looking at music and listening to it and hearing what Bluebeard says to her throughout, it’s incredibly loving, beautiful, and supportive. And there’s this intense loneliness and sadness to the music that didn’t chime with the story of a psychopathic toxic masculine character. I just couldn’t reconcile those two.

Music director Stephen Higgins. (Courtesy of TAO)

Music director Stephen Higgins. (Courtesy of TAO)

So I started to build this picture and ask, well, what are the other three wives? What do they mean, and what’s behind these doors? Stephen Higgins, the music director, and I were workshopping the piece in the summer of 2019. We had the opportunity for a week to read it through with some singers and really get to know it. There’s a passage towards the opera’s end where Bluebeard introduces these wives or explains to Judith what these three wives are. He says, “This is the wife of my morning.” Then the next wife is the wife of his midday, the third wife is the wife of his sunset, and Judith is the wife of his nighttime.

And so we went through the situation. What could this cycle mean? What is this collection of four wives? Is it seasons? Is it a place? And then we thought about the idea of time, and suddenly it clicked. What if this was not four Judiths but was, in fact, one Judith and one relationship that has gone through the cycle of time? And the reason she needs to look behind the doors and doesn’t recognize it is because she is living with dementia, and Bluebeard is, in fact, showing her life to her. And each of these rooms is a moment in her life. A newborn baby is in the garden room, or a wedding, or the treasury.

I noticed this and suddenly had this “eureka” moment of this completely different perspective on this piece that makes the music and the libretto sing or come to life in a way that it never really has before. And suddenly, we can sympathize with Bluebeard and weep with him at his loss as much as he does in a way that works incredibly well. It suddenly makes sense the story in a very, very coherent way that is relevant to everyone.

MG: Speaking of flexibility: The Bailey Performance Center is a concert hall, not a theater, and you previously produced this in a chapel, I believe. Neither space was built for legitimate theater. How do you address the staging of this work in these kinds of alternative non-theatrical spaces?

DE: Well, I guess this concept, the idea that we had, was the gift that kept on giving because it’s a domestic setting which is important for us to be very intimate. I don’t think this concept would work in a 1500-seat theater. It needs to have people very close to it to really feel like they’re sitting in the room with Judith and Bluebeard. It’s much more of a psychological and emotional experience. There are no cavalry charges in it, and I guess if you were staging this traditionally, you might need a big space with a torture chamber in an armory and garden and all of that. But here, it’s much more compact, and I want the audience to feel like they’re very, very close so it can pick up on all of the amazing acting that Susan Bullock and Michael Mays are doing. It’s very, very subtle and almost filmic, and that’s a new thing for opera. It’s something that we at Theatre of Sound are very keen to develop and challenge the opera world.

Susan Bullock as Judith and Michael Mayes as Bluebeard. (credit: Mihaela Bodlovic for Theatre of Sound)

Susan Bullock as Judith and Michael Mayes as Bluebeard. (credit: Mihaela Bodlovic for Theatre of Sound)

You don’t always have to be an opera house with a large set and orchestra. You can do it to an incredibly high standard and get this really unique experience that is actually developing the form because people are also used to watching things on their televisions in their homes. We have to move with the times in a way and offer a different experience, but that also is incredibly honest and holds up opera and the quality of opera very highly. We’re not scaling back anywhere. We were looking for a concept that could pack a punch in a small space.

Also, Steve [Higgins] has made an incredible septet reduction of Bartók’s large orchestra score, which to us was relevant because living with dementia does make your world smaller; it makes everything seem magnified. Small things become huge things. For me, that’s what opera does incredibly well. These very small emotions or the minor issues in our lives become magnified and enormous and turn into personal love stories or tragedies, which is what this version of Bluebeard spotlights. It’s an incredibly intimate yet intense hour in the theater, and you’ll be very close to it.

MG: Your description sounds ideal for the film medium because you can take the point of view off the stage to go to the stage of mind.

DE: Yes, but there is one thing that you don’t get in film, and that is the collective experience for the audience, and given our experience in London, even though it was a very tiny space and filming-style thing, the fact that we had three hundred fifty people and that everyone was on tenterhooks. You could hear a pin drop towards the end. That was something amazingly magical about that you know and it’s that experience for the audience I’m really in it for otherwise I would have given up long ago.

I love giving audiences this transformative feeling, just to feel something in live theater. It’s like being beside a real fire. It isn’t like a picture of a fire. You can feel the heat coming off Susan and Mike as actors. Even though it would work very well on film, that priceless live experience gives it that extra intensity.

MG: What would you like to tell the audience about this production that you want them to keep foremost in mind?

DE: I hope audiences would know before they come or that people understand about this, is that even though it’s a concept about living with dementia, it’s not a sad show. I mean that there is incredible sadness in it, but I suppose this ought to have so many emotions in it you are overwhelmed at the end, rather than desperately sad because anyone’s died or we’ve lost something. It’s just a very intense, sublime feeling of “this is what life is,” and thousands of people are going through this at home. We have this in London.

A lot of people said it sounds amazing, but I don’t want to come because my mom is living with dementia, and I can’t face it. People who were in that situation and did come said it was incredibly transformative and an almost positive spin on living with dementia because it celebrates their life together as much as it is sad. There is this intense love, and it’s about the power and positivity of love, but there isn’t anything more devastating from love.

MG: There’s a healing factor involved.

DE: Exactly. There is, there is. In London, I thought if I’ve ever achieved anything with this, I hope that people would come out and think, “Oh, I’ve got to call my mum,” or “I’m going to talk to grandma,” or “I need to make sure that I contact that person I may not have spoken to for a while,” and just hold close those we love dear. And that’s incredibly empowering and positive as much as it is sad when things come to an end.

The Atlanta Opera performs Bluebeard’s Castle this weekend at the Bailey Performance Center, Kennesaw State University, on Friday and Saturday, October 7 & 8, at 8:00 pm, and Sunday, October 9 at 3:009 pm.


Mark Gresham

Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant. He began writing as a music journalist over 30 years ago but has been a composer of music much longer than that. He was the winner of an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 2003.

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